Wednesday, June 4, 2008

First impressions

So here I am, safe and sound.

Louise -- my girlfriend's --  garden is straight out of the Old Testament. I don't recognize most of the plants in it, but there are giant ferns, climbing flowering vines, banana trees, palm trees, guava trees, avocado trees, and what is apparently the biggest jacaranda tree in all Harare. The fauna is just as impressive: yellow spiders five inches across that are harmless, tiny jumping spiders the size of a pinhead whose bite causes creeping necrosis (which they cut out without any anaesthetic, to avoid infecting the blood), African doves that hoot like owls. I've also seen the requisite giraffes and crocodiles and gazelles (no elephants so far).

Life here feels decidedly colonial. Louise assures me that she is solidly middle class in Zimbabwe, but it's not a middle class life that I recognize. We live on a plot of land big enough to hold the Garden of Eden, a two greenhouses, three brick patios, a veranda, four or five cars, a vegetable patch, and enough lawn to hold a soccer tournament. Not to mention the, uh, domestics' quarters. That is to say, where the, ahem, "domestics" live. To wit, a maid, a couple of gardeners, and their kids. All of which is enclosed by a high concrete wall with an electric gate.

I realize that it sounds like life as a British Viceroy, but it is not in fact an extraordinarily luxurious life so far. Or at least, comparatively speaking. You can drive for miles and miles around Harare and see nothing but the walled-in compounds of the "middle classes." A significant portion of the urban population really seems to live this way. And as far as having a lot of land goes, it's not just a luxury -- we really live on the vegetables from the vegetable patch and the eggs from the chickens. Then again, on the days when we sit on the veranda eating fresh passion fruit and drinking port, it's hard not to think of the "clubs" for empire-building whites in another era. Or what I had thought was another era. Still more reminiscent of those days was the restaurant I went to with Louise a few days ago, where a predominantly white crowd ate lunch on an expansive lawn behind a gate guarded by a man in khaki and a pith helmet.

It's important to remember, though, that Zimbabwean whites these days are difficult to pigeon-hole. There's no denying the colonial legacies, but Mugabe drove the vast majority of the whites away by authorizing his cronies to seize their land, killing, plundering, and raping in the process. The whites who remain -- about 25,000 of them out of some 300,000 -- are largely born and raised in Zimbabwe. Many of them work for aid organizations or schools. It's a very interesting setting.

Still, the shortages we here about in the states are not very much in evidence for people with some money. A couple of US dollars -- about Z$1.5 billion as of a week ago, so considerably more by now -- buys enough vegetables for a few days, and they're not hard to find. Some things are impossible to get, like wheat flour, cooking oil, and so on.

The money situation is insane. When I arrived, the exchange rate was six hundred million Zimbabwe dollars to one US. Someone in Louise's office exchanges money on the black market, so I gave her $30 to change -- she came back with a stack of bills six inches high, each one worth Z$50 million. We calculated that a single sheet of toilet paper costs at least Z$100,000, but that was a week ago, so the price has probably gone up considerably. The latest innovation is the "Agrobond," some sort of bearer's check in denominations of billions allegedly meant to make things easier for farmers. In reality, word is that the people in charge didn't want news of a billion dollar bill hitting the streets. People hand over huge piles of ten million dollar bills to get rid of them like spare change.

I've only been at work for a couple of days, but so far it's going well. They have me working on several papers at once, all transitional justice projects for various people. Of course, given the current state of affairs it looks like there will be neither transition nor justice in Zimbabwe in the foreseeable future, but it's interesting, educational work. I may have a chance to work on a report to the UN, which would be right up my alley, so I'm trying to sweet talk the right people. Part of my research will come from interviews we'll conduct, so at the moment I'm working on a set of interview questions for police who have been involved in violence or torture -- imagine a telephone survey with questions like "Have you ever raped anyone in custody?" It is, to say the least, surreal. But apparently they've got hold of a few officers willing to interview anonymously, so maybe it'll produce something valuable. Just to reassure you, I won't be conducting the police interviews myself -- not only am I working illegally, but most of them don't speak English. So don't worry about that.

So in short, the word for the week is "disorienting." I don't know where anything is, or what anything is, or who anyone is, or what to think of anything. But it's hugely fun so far, and very exciting.

On the flight over, we stopped in Dakar to refuel and pick up more passengers: tall, thin, black men in white robes and brimless hats; and a group of fat, red-faced, Afrikaans farmers with triple chins and beady eyes. Louise's father came to pick me up from the airport, where I arrived pretty late at night. He shushed me when I commented upon the five portraits of Robert Mugabe I saw on the way from the gate to the luggage carousel. The ride from the airport to Louise's house went through the industrial district of Harare. The street lights were out because of power cuts, but I could see groups of men sitting by the highway, or walking along with bundles on their heads. Andy said the area was known for smash and grabs, so he ran every red light and swerved around the huge potholes in the road like a maniac. The house is in a compound behind a high wall with an electric gate.

Went to the market today, my first trip outside the compound. The suburbs look almost rural, with trees everywhere and all the houses hidden behind concrete walls, but everywhere there are people along the road, or sitting selling miserably tiny piles of vegetables -- one man was sitting next to a stall with two tomatoes. We went to a fairly well stocked vegetable market, where a woman with an orange head wrap and an infant stared at me fixedly the whole time. Our pile of vegetables and squashes came to 1.4 billion Zimbabwe dollars, or about two American dollars. I can't keep track of the money -- people just say "three" or "four" and you don't know if they mean three hundred million or three billion. The banks won't let you withdraw more than five billion each day, which is woefully inadequate for most things. Louise and I had planned to go out to lunch, but her three billion wasn't enough to cover it, and the man at her office who trades currency on the black market can't get any until tomorrow.

We went looking at possible places to live, which meant going to a couple of different compounds. One, across the road, was owned by a man of eighty or ninety who took about fifteen minutes because he is "racked with arthritis." He told us that was about to go away to visit "a lady friend, a family lady friend of forty years standing, so don't snigger."

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